A favorite herb or spice?

I was recently faced with answering a question on an application for employment that really made me think about herbs and spices.  The question:  What is your favorite spice or seasoning, on what do you use it?  My first inclination was  herbs and spices, and I use them on everything, but I decided that was inappropriate, and gave some thought to the matter.

Well, I’ve decided that I cannot say that I have a favorite herb or spice!  My difficulty in answering this question is that I  love most herbs and spices (not really sure about asafoetida yet), and that my preferences change seasonally, and even with the weather within any particular season.   I likely will not season haricots verts in the middle of the winter as I might with the first fresh ones off the bush in the spring. Crisp autumn weather leads me to use “warmer” herbs and spices than during the heavy, humid summer heat, when I want cool and refreshing seasoning.

As a person who cooks for one and sometimes has several servings of the same vegetable, fruit or meat in a relatively short period of time, I find that one of the best ways not to get that “leftover” flavor is to use different herbs and spices with the same vegetable or meat at different times.  When I come home from the farmers’ market with a huge bunch of greens, I may prep them so that I can use them in multiple ways: first, I may sauté some simply seasoned with good extra-virgin olive oil salt and fresh-ground black pepper.  The second time I use them,  I may add onion, or sweet peppers, and if there is a third use, maybe more robust seasonings like garlic, crushed red pepper flakes.  Sometimes I open up the drawer where my herbs and spices live and just open jars and sniff to determine what I’ll use.  I suppose that I have to admit that even mood affects how I season things!  (I have the same difficulty answering the similar question about what is my favorite color, and to me herbs and spices are very much like painting with a palette of colors.)

There are classic pairings, such as basil with tomatoes, which are wonderful, but fresh sweet marjoram is also wonderful with those luscious summer tomatoes; so is Greek oregano and Syrian oregano, though I suppose I tend to use those even more in the winter or at least cooler weather. Classic combinations not withstanding, I love the process of seasoning my food–of smelling the individual components and blending, and tasting the results, and that is a large part of  cooking for me to fit my taste for a particular ingredient, or season, or mood.  Seasoning can make cooking for one a delight–a son goût!

I’m left without an answer to the question that started all this!  In looking at my selection of herbs (dried in the drawer, or fresh in the pots on my deck) I simply cannot say that there is a favorite.  I have very few prepared mixes of herbs or spices, usually choosing to do my own blends.

I’m not intending to denigrate pre-mixed seasonings, at all, if they are made with quality ingredients and are not mostly salt or sugar.  There is one  mixture of herbs that I do purchase blended, and that I do use when I find myself unable to make up my mind or am really in a rush:  herbs de Provence.   But I’m not willing to say that is my favorite–it’s a regular potpourri of herbs that is useful for meats, vegetables, soups, and stews.  My favorite herbs de Provence I order, as I do almost all of my herbs and spices, from Penzeys Spices. It reflects an admixture of French and Italian herbs that must hark back to Roman influences:  rosemary, fennel, thyme, savory, basil, tarragon, dill weed, Turkish oregano, lavender, chervil, and marjoram.    What’s not to love in that mixture!

I’m sure that good seasoning mixes do fill a niche for many home cooks who don’t love the seasoning process as much as I do, and have a definite place in their kitchens.  I just love the sniffing and tasting part of food preparation.  Penzeys Spices has a great selection to browse if you are finding your way and learning about herbs and spices outside the basics.  You will find lots of salt-free seasoning mixes to try.  That’s one of the good things about cooking for one, it’s definitely a son goût!

More on duck with fresh fig sauce

This duck with fresh fig sauce is such wonderful treat that I’m experimenting with ways to do this for one, or maybe two people.  I’ve always made stock from the leftover duck carcass and put that in the freezer.

I have also made the duck-fig bouillon to just short of the final reduction and put some in the freezer, with the figs (no idea how they will fare) to see if I can adapt this recipe to be done with pan-seared duck breasts, which seem to be readily available from the supermarket.  I want to be able to taste the bouillon from the freezer with some made with just the frozen duck stock and fresh figs to see how it has held up to the freezing.

I have enough friends who like duck that I can do a whole roast duck occasionally, and have the carcass to make stock so it’s always on hand from the freezer; however, if you don’t want to do the whole duck or the two-duck recipe, you can obtain duck-veal demi-glace from D’Artagnan and that would certainly be a good starting point from which to begin.  I have used this  product before in making cassoulet and was very pleased with it.

I’ll be reporting on the results of this experiment soon as the weather is cooling off and more robust food begins to appeal–and the last of the figs on the tree are ripening.

Roast duck with fresh fig sauce

No–it’s not a single serving, but it’s so good that you just have to make it when there are fresh figs available.  So invite friends and enjoy.

Adapted from In Search of the Perfect Meal, a collection of writing by Roy Andries de Groot, pp 148-150.

  • 2 Long Island ducks (one about 2-1/2 pounds, and one about 4-1/2 to 5 pounds).
  • 1 lemon cut in half
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped with leaves
  • 3 springs of fresh parsley
  • kosher salt to taste
  • freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 12 whole fresh figs (I like black mission, but any good ripe fresh fig will work)
  • 2 ounces French Orgeat, almond syrup
  • about 2 cups chicken bouillon
  • 1 cup white wine, preferably Sancerre
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallots
  • 2 tablespoons sweet butter

Ducks: Preheat the oven to 350 ° F.  Rub the ducks inside and outside with the lemon. Prick the underside skin to allow fat to run out.  Place the ducks on a rack in an open roasting pan and roast until the breasts are pink (usually no more than about 45 to 50 minutes).

Stock: While the ducks are roasting, put chopped onion, chopped carrots, chopped celery and parsley springs into  a 2-quart sauce pan. Pour a pint of cold water over these and bring rapidly to a boil.  Stir, and reduce heat to a simmer and continue simmering until the duck carcass is ready to go in.

Figs: Put figs in a 1-quart saucepan.  Dribble the Orgeat over them and pour enough of the chicken stock over them to cover. Heat this to a gentle simmer and continue simmering, covered, until the figs are warm and puffed up (usually 5 to 10 minutes).  The stock should be vaguely sweet with the fig juice.  Remove the figs (carefully) and keep warm in a covered container.

Now boil the fig-chicken stock hard to reduce to about half and concentrate its sweetness.  Hold covered until you need it later.

Back to the roasting ducks: When the breasts are pink, put the larger one in a covered casserole and let stand tightly covered over extremely low heat on top of the stove, gently ripening in its own juices for about an hour.

Carve off the breast, legs, thighs and wings of the smaller duck and put them into the covered casserole with the larger duck.

Chop the carcass of the smaller duck into pieces, about 8 pieces, and put them into the 2-quart saucepan with the vegetables; press the pieces down into the liquid fairly tightly. If necessary add more water to cover.  Continue simmering, covered, until the stock is needed later.

Skim off the fat from the pan in which the ducks were roasted and set the pan over a burner, and deglaze with the cup of white wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the fond.  Pour this deglazing mixture into the simmering duck bouillon.

Completion and assembly: Preheat grill.  Strain the duck bouillon, return to the saucepan and boiling it hard to reduce it and concentrate the flavor.  Reheat the fig bouillon to just bubbling.  While finishing the sauce here, you must taste continually the duck and the fig stocks to get them just right to combine.  If the sauce is too sweet it will overwhelm the duck–you want just a very delicate on sweetness in this sauce so that you still appreciate the “duckiness” of the meat. Defat the duck stock.  Pour the fig bouillon into the duck stock, add the 2 tablespoons of shallots, and continue boiling to further reduce the combined sauce.

Place the figs on a platter and quickly glaze them under the broiler–for just a minute or two.

Now, carve the duck (the whole bird) and the parts from the casserole. Set portions on warmed plates and garnish with the glazed figs.  When the sauce has just the right sweetness, turn the heat down to below simmer, add a fair amount of white pepper–enough to cut across the sweetness of the sauce, but not enough to “prick your throat”.  Do not let the sauce boil after adding the pepper or it will have a bitter taste.

When the sauce is just right, monter au beurre. (Melt the butter on the surface, a small piece at a time, stirring in.  This will give the sauce a luxurious, velvety mouth-feel.  Pour the sauce around (not over) the duck and figs on the plate.  Rush them to the table.

Wine: Because of the sweetness of the sauce, red wine is not  quite right with this dish.  The recommended wine (from the French restaurant where this dish is served) is a white burgundy.  I did this with a Meursault and it was luxurious.   For domestic wine, a California PinotChardonnay from the Alexander Valley was recommended.

Even though this is a fairly complicated preparation and definitely not a single serving it is an exquisite dish.  If you have duck at other times, by all means make stock from the carcasses and freeze it. If you have the stock, you can do this sauce at any time you have the fresh figs available and perhaps serve with pan-seared duck breast without roasting the whole bird.

I love wine in a box!

I’m definitely an oenophile. I like wine with my meals, but sometimes I hesitate to open a bottle when I know that I’m going to have leftovers, or if I think that it’s a more expensive bottle than I want to have only for one.  I also like to cook with wine, but hate opening a bottle for just a glass and a splash in the sauce.  I think that wine in a box is one of the greatest that for those of us living alone.  It’s now possible to get good wine, inexpensively in a box.  Tuck a box of white in the fridge, and stash a box of red on the pantry shelf.  I can have the luxury of a glass of wine whenever I want, and a splash of white for cooking even when I’m drinking red.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t have some exquisite bottles in my cellar.  They’re the ones to  have with a special meal, and possibly with friends.  But the “house” wine is now in a box.  It’s not cheap wine–just inexpensive and convenient.

There was one advantage of having “leftovers”–bits and pieces of bottles: those make great wine vinegar.  I have a glass container in the cabinet that get “fed” on those to keep the mother alive, so I have a constant supply of good wine vinegar.  It’s unfiltered, unpasteurized, potent, and much more complex in flavor that the stuff out of a bottle.  I’ve had the red wine going since I was given the mother over 10 years ago.  It’s simple to keep–the occasional splash of wine from the box, or occasionally, but a really inexpensive bottle and dump that in.

I recently decided that I wanted white wine vinegar, too.  So, took some of the mother from my red wine and put it into a bottle of white wine.  Not sure yet what is going to happen–now it’s still a bit pink as the mother was a very deep, dark red.  There will be future reports on the progress.

Shallots

Shallots (Allium ascalonicum), a member of the onion family, is formed somewhat like garlic with several “cloves” per head.  The individual “cloves” are more onion-like with layers within each bulb.  The outer skin can range from grayish tan to a rosy brown.  The flesh may have a pale greenish to purple tint.  The flavor is mild–somewhat between onion and garlic–not hot like onion.  When buying, look for bulbs that are firm, with shiny skins, and without sprouts.  Shallots should be stored like onions or garlic: in a dry place, out of direct light, and with good ventilation.

Shallots

Shallots can be used like onions–very versatile.  They have a mild onion flavor.  They are classic ingredients in beurre blanc, vinaigrette, and béarnaise sauces.  They are expensive in the grocery stores, so it’s a really treat to find them at the farmers’ market somewhat less expensively.

One of the things that I did with them was to sauté  some and add to scrambled eggs.  Another wonderful thing to do when you are fortunate enough to have lots of shallots is to roast them either alone (and then add just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar before serving), or to include them with other roasted vegetables.  They can add wonderful flavor to other vegetables like green beans–so many things to do with this member of the allium family.

The add a marvelous touch to a simple vinaigrette.  The recipe for shallot vinaigrette below is taken from Lilies of the Kitchen, by Barbara Batcheller, p. 211:

  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley springs
  • 2 large shallots
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2/3 cup peanut oil
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Place the parsley, shallots, and vinegar in a blender and given them a few whirls to mince the parsley and shallots.  Add the mustard, sugar, salt, and pepper and spin again.

With the motor running, add the oils in a thin stream.  Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Many dishes, such as vegetables, or meats are excellent with a touch of vinaigrette–and easy way to dress up some leftover veggies or meat.  Once you experience the flavor of shallots, I think that you’ll find many uses for them.

Vinaigrette

I think that seasoning is SO important when cooking for one–it can take that serving of veggies from sort of humdrum to great so easily. One of the easiest ways to “dress up” leftovers is to use a sauce with them on the second run.

I think that one of the easiest is a vinaigrette.  It’s so simple, holds well in the fridge. If you know a basic ratio (usually 3 parts oil to 1 part acid or if you prefer a less tart dressing 4 parts oil to 1 part acid) you can vary it easily.

A bit of mustard serves to aid the emulsification of the oil and acid.  The acid can be vinegar, or it can be lemon juice, lime juice, orange or grapefruit juice.  You can easily add different herbs, or garlic, onion, shallot, spices, or chives as an aromatic, depending on what you want:  with fish, lemon might be a good choice.

Stored in a small jar, covered, it will keep for approximately a week in the refrigerator, so it’s always handy.  This same vinaigrette is good to make a non-mayonnaise tuna or chicken salad.  Better and less expensive than store-bought salad dressing, and without additives and preservatives.

A new cookbook

A few weeks ago, I had a friend visiting (as a house guest) from California.  We were out and about doing some things that I don’t usually do: visited A Southern Season to browse for housewares and foods, and we visited The Regulator Bookshop. Both were having their summer sales.  As usual, I came home with things that I did not expect to buy.

One of my “finds” at the bookstore was The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones.  This is an admixture of philosophy of eating alone as well as some recipes, and, best of all, lots of tips for not having left-overs.  While some of the recipes are for things that cannot be bought in small quantities (like pork tenderloin) she provides recipes and suggestions about make several different dishes from the “left-overs” so that they really don’t taste like left-overs. While this does require some meal planning, the emphasis here is on flexibility and improvisation.  I was impressed that the recipes here were real meals for real enjoyment.  I think that this is a worthwhile addition to my cookbook library.